Understanding rasa-lila 1 – How the supreme Shelter (Ashraya) becomes sheltered (Ashrita)
[Bhagavatam class on 10.29.1 at ISKCON, Denver, USA]
Transcribed by: Sadananda Prabhu
Understanding rasa-lila 1 – How the supreme Shelter (Ashraya) becomes sheltered (Ashrita)
In the next few series of classes I will talk about the Rasa Lila pastime and try to understand it; first in terms of Tattva and then in terms of Lila. The purpose is to appreciate the glories of Radharani as the topmost devotee of Krishna.
Tattva refers to philosophical truth and Lila refers to pastime. The chapters from 29th to 33rd in the Bhagavatam have been a subject of elaborate exposition by the Gaudia Vaisnava Acharyas. In fact, if you consider the Gaudia Vaisnava tradition, there are many books written on the tenth canto by our Acharyas. One category of books is the verse by verse commentary. The first verse by verse commentary in the tenth canto is written by an Acharya named Srinath Chakraborty. He wrote a book called Caitanya Manjusa which is a commentary on the Bhagavatam. Of course, Sridhar Swami wrote a commentary which was before Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. So, it is not exactly a Gaudia Vaisnava commentary. The Gaudia Vaisnava commentary refers to the commentary written by the Acharyas in the Gaudia Vaisnava tradition.
The Gaudia Vaisnava tradition is the tradition of Bhakti which was inaugurated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. The Bhakti tradition extends back to thousands and thousands of years, and Bhakti itself is eternal. Bhakti refers to the soul’s inclination to love the supreme soul. This is universal existing across history, geography, culture and religion. It is expressed in different ways in different traditions, and it expressed specifically in the Bhakti yoga tradition in India wherein there are systematic methods for awakening one’s love for Krishna. This systematic explanation of Bhakti Yoga was enhanced and enriched by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu especially in terms of the emphasis of the revelation of the extraordinary activeness of the supreme reality. So, in the process of Bhakti there are three factors: there is the Bhakta, there is the Bhagavan and there is Bhakti. In any relationship there are the two people who are involved in the relationship, and there is the interaction and emotion that connects to people. Similarly, in the relationship with the supreme Lord there is Bhagavan who is the supreme, there is the soul, and there is the relationship that connects all three of them. Now this connection can manifest in different ways, just like in our own relationships we can relate with different people in different ways; for example, somebody might be a parent, a friend, a brother or sister, our colleague, our boss or our subordinate. Just as people can connect in different ways with different people, similarly, here it is described in the tradition that we can connect with Krishna in different ways. So, this pastime will begin with the focus on Krishna.
The Bhagavatam is a book which is narrated from the perspective of the omniscient narrator. If you read novels, they can be told from different perspectives. Sometimes when the novel is an action novel, it is told from the perspective of the hero. And then, if the villain is doing something, the hero doesn’t come to know about it till something happens to the hero because of that. That is the one-character narrative. Everything is experienced to the perspective of that character. Sometimes some novels are described from two perspectives; there is say a hero and there is a heroin. So, sometimes things are described from the hero’s perspective and sometimes it is described from the heroin’s perspective. The omniscient narrator means that the narrator knows everything and decides what is appropriate to display. So, Sukhadev Goswami is describing the Bhagavatam from the perspective of the omniscient narrator. The word “Omniscient” here doesn’t refer to God omniscience. Only God knows everything. Omni means everything. But when a novelist is writing a book, in a way, the novelist is playing the role of God. The novelist is deciding, “This character will have this kind of characteristics, this kind of personality, and this is how the story-line will move, this is when this event will happen and this is how this event will happen. In that sense, when the omniscient narrator is telling the story, then the readers know more about the story than the characters do. This is because the readers are reading from the hero’s perspective, and then what is happening to the hero, the heroin may not know. The heroin is in her own world thinking about various things, and some disaster will happen somewhere else. The heroin doesn’t know but the readers know, and the readers are going to wonder how it is going to affect the heroin. Similarly, if something happens to the heroin, then the hero doesn’t know. So, in the omniscient narrator, the readers know more than the characters in the novel, in the narrative. The Bhagavatam describes mostly from the perspective of the devotees; like Prahlad Maharaj did this.
The Bhagavatam is not a novel in the sense that the novel often conveys the idea of something fictional. The Bhagavatam is not fictional; it is transcendental. But still it is describing stories. So, in that sense it follows some of the rules and structures of story-telling. Most of time the Bhagavatam tells us a narrative from the perspective of just objective events: “this happened, this happened etc.” On a few occasions the Bhagavatam reveals the inner dialogue; that means what the person is thinking. If we consider the first canto of the Bhagavatam itself, when Parikshit Maharaja mistakenly offends a sage by putting a snake around his head, in the nineteenth chapter Parikshit Maharja says, “Was that sage simply neglecting me or was he actually in trance and he didn’t notice me? If he was in trance, then I have committed a great offence to him. This is an example of inner dialogue. Inner dialogue means, “what the person is thinking internally without any conversation with anyone”, and it is through the inner dialogue that we come to know the person even more closely. Normally how do we come to know about people? We may come to know about them by observing them, by seeing how they dress, how they act etc. But we can come to know better about them by talking with them and hearing the words that they speak. But the words that one speaks reveals a significant part of a person’s character, but if we could know what their thoughts are, then we could come to know them even better.
This section of the Bhagavatam begins with a glimpse into the mind of God. The first verse describes what was Krishna’s thinking when he was about to perform the Rajasurya yajna. So, we get a glimpse into the mind of God. How is that glimpse described? It starts here when Sukhadev Goswami says, although he is Bhagavan, although he is the supreme being – now, interestingly Bhagavan is one of the most occurring words in the Bhagavatam, and the word Bhagavan is sometimes used to refer to Krishna, his manifestations or his incarnations. Sometimes the word Bhagavan is used for great personalities also, but the idea is that Bhagavan indicates somebody who is great, and in this context, it has been abundantly made clear that this not just referring to a great personality, but it is referring to the greatest personality. So, even though he is Bhagavan or the supreme person, on those nights when it is autumn, the weather was very beautiful and very sweet, and it was evocative of the sweet loving pastimes, and there is not only sweet beautiful skyline with a moon but also stars in the sk. Actually, our Acharyas have started by telling about how they had different kinds of books written on the tenth canto. One kind of book is on the linear verse by verse commentary of the tenth canto. An example could be Caitanya Manjusa by Viswanatha Chakraborty or Sarartha Darsani. Gopal Champu and Ananda Vrindavan Champu are the two books which have been written as not a commentary on the tenth canto, but we could say is an expanded retelling of the tenth canto which wherein there are abundant verses. In Gopal Champu, Jiva Goswami quotes abundant verses from the tenth canto and other Puranas to explain and elaborate what is happening in the tenth canto. Ananda Vrindavan Champu is also a book like that, but it focusses only on Krishna’s Vrindavana pastimes.
For many of the Acharyas the thought that Krishna leaves Vrindavan is unbearable, and although it is Krishna’s pastimes only, they don’t have the heart to write on those pastimes. Kavi Karnapur who wrote Ananda Vrindavan Champu decided to just focus on Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavan. The word Champu refers to a particular literary composition which is a combination of prose and poetry in a very artistic integration. Therefore, if you read the Gopal Champu, you will find two numbers in it. One is for the verses and another is numbering is for the text. Just like most of the scriptures are in verse forms, but not everything is in verse form. So, the word Champu refers to that special literary genre which is an artistic integration of poetry and prose. And Gopal refers to the Lord who is being described as Gopala Champu. Ananda Vrindavana Champu refers to the Lord who is the joy of Vrindavan. One is the commentary of the tenth canto and the second is the very expanded retelling of the tenth canto. Along with that there is huge number of small books written which describe primarily these five chapters, and broadly Krishna’s conjugal pastimes. Rupa Goswami has written the Lalita Madhava and Vidagdha Madhava, and there are many other books written which speak elaborately on these pastimes. These are the heart of Gaudia Vaisnivism, and our Acharyas have elaborately expanded and enriched the vision of Krishna that is revealed in the tenth canto of the Bhagavatam. This section of the tenth canto’s begins with the first word which is Bhagavan. It is stated “He is God. Don’t think of him to be an ordinary person.” This section is almost so important that it can become a whole book in itself, and there are many books written on this topic. One of Srila Prabhupada’s scholarly disciple’s named Garuda Prabhu did his Phd in this five chapters called the Rasa Panchadhyaya. He wrote a book called “Dance of Divine Love.” which is a contemporary explanation of these five chapters. It all begins with Bhagavan; there is a normal conception of God as the desire fulfiller or as the provider of what we need. But this section is going to reveal a vision of God that is radically different, and yet to emphasize that this is God, it begins first with Bhagavan. “Bhagavan api ta ratri” – although he is Bhagavan or the supreme Lord, on those nights he was extremely beautiful. There was the autumn season and the autumn moon which is there. Technically speaking, this is describing the incident that happened in the Sarad Purnima; and also, there are flowers that are blossoming. There are some flowers which blossom in the sun and there are some flowers which blossom in the moon. They blossom when the moonlight comes. They are flowers like jasmine. They blossom in the night, and with the moon above and the flowers below it creates a beautiful atmosphere; and Krishna saw all these. Krishna was at his home, but he came out of his home and he looked out of the window, and out of the door and he saw the sky and he looked at the beautiful lush greenery of Vrindavan. He saw the rich flowers across the Vrindavana forest, and in his mind, he desired to enjoy. He desired to relish sweet pastimes, and for that purpose he saw, and then on seeing he desired to enjoy. Before we describe this Viksha and Rantum, let’s look at the last line.
It is interesting that if you consider the first word and the last word, Bhagavan is the first word and Upasritah is the last word. Actually, this is significant because the Bhagavam describes ten subjects which are described in the Bhagavatam, and among them nine subjects are considered to be Ashrit. They are the shelter, and the tenth subject is Bhagavan itself who is considered the ashraya. Various topics like Swarga and visarga are described. That means that the Bhagavatam analyses the material existence into various phases in terms of time and actions. And it describes how we can make sense of cosmic history.
Normally when we look back either at our life or at somebody else’s life, or even when we look at the history of a nation, it is not that we describe a systematic and elaborate history. If we look at our own life in the past, it is not that the past is like a linear narrative which we remember in all the details. In the past certain events stand out. Our past is not like a flat plane behind us. In a flat plane a towering building or a mountain stands out to us, and they are what we see and notice immediately if we looking back at the territories. Similarly, for us, if somebody asks us, “What are the striking memories of you past?” we won’t go about telling the narrative of each day. We will look back and see what are the narratives that strike out for us. One of my friends is doing his Phd. in history, and then he wants to do the history of religious tradition, and later on he wants to do the history of Gaudia Vaisnivism. He was telling me that every history is actually a selection because history is so big. What we all do is, we include; and what we exclude is a decision that everyone has to make, and that decision reveals what will be highlighted and what will be neglected. Similarly, when the Bhagavatam is giving us a description of cosmic history, then the Bhagavatam while describing cosmic history selects certain incidents, and for selecting certain incidents it analyses what are the topics that are important. Just like somebody might tell, “We want to describe the political history of America.” Then we will primarily focus on who was the king, who was the Prime Minister, who was the President, how was things in his rule, what are the political wars that happened etc. This would be political history. But if somebody wants to describe the intellectual history of America, then you would say, “This was the prominent intellectual in this century, this was the prominent intellectual in this decade, this is how the ideas became widespread, this was the thought that came at this time.” If you want to describe the literary history of America, then we would have different authors, poets and the kind of writings that were there. So, history itself can be described from different perspectives. Similarly, when the Bhagavatam describes the cosmic history, it describes it primarily in terms of certain visions, and the whole point of describing the history in the Bhagavatam is to reveal how history is “His story” or it is God who is acting through all this. Yes, we could of course say that there are many things which have happened in the Bhagavatam, but the primary purpose of the Bhagavatam is to describe how God has acted throughout history. Here I am conveying the significance of the word “Upasritaha”; that actually the Bhagavatam describes that all of history is “Asritaha” or sheltered on Krishna. But here it is saying that Krishna took shelter of Yoga Maya. So, that word Upasritaha is extremely significant in that sense.
How is history “His story” as revealed in the Bhagavatam? Actually, if you consider the cantos of the Bhagavatam, the first canto basically sets the scene. Here it firstly describes the historical origin of the Bhagavatam in terms of the conversation between Suta Goswami and the Naimisaranya sages. These conversations are the first and the second chapters, and then the conceptual origin of the Srimad Bhagavatam in terms of the conversation between Vyasadev and Narada Muni is explained from fourth to sixth chapters, and then the readiness of the conservationists for hearing and speaking the Bhagavatam is explained. The seventh chapter briefly describes how Sukhadev Goswami became enlightened, and from the seventh chapter to the nineteenth chapter it describes how Parikshit Maharaja became ready for enlightened. In that Krishna’s appearance, his actions and his disappearance and the Pandava’s disappearance are described. So, the first canto is more or less setting the scene, and in that Krishna acts repeatedly. The second canto describes questions by Parikshit Maharaja to Sukhadev Goswami, and there are various subjects discussed in the second canto, but these are more of a preliminary understanding of the basic concepts of analyzing the universe. This goes on in the third canto and in the second canto also wherein there is preliminary discussion before the real class begins. And from the third canto onwards till the twelfth canto, the Bhagavatam is like the biography of the universe and is describing one day in the life of Brahma, beginning from the process of creation to Brahma’s confusion to Brahma’s enlightenment. And then there are various Manu’s. The third canto describes the appearance of Swambhuva Manu, and from the third canto till the eight canto it is the incidents that have happened in the life of Swambhuva Manu that is describe. Then, there are description of various descendants of Swambhuva Manu, like what happened to his daughter Devahuti and what happened to her children, and then what happened to her other daughter Akuti and what happened to her children; and not just what happened to her children, but in all these incidents how Krishna appeared at various times in various incarnations and acted. So, it is describing cosmic history, but it choosing those incidents within the cosmic history where God has appeared, and where Krishna played some significant role. In the eight canto the Bhagavatam does a fast forward. Sukhadeva Goswami is speaking about Swambhuva Manu, but till now he has not come directly to Krishna. So, he is eager to come to Krishna. Like if are watching a movie; if there is a three-hour movie and you know that the last half an hour is action. You watch for one and half hour and then you realize that you have only two hours remaining. Then you do a fast-forward for the next one hour and come to the last half-hour because that is what you want to watch, and that is the time you have. So, as Sukhadeva Goswami is describing the narratives of the Lord, he goes into detail describing one Swambhuva Manu, but then he realizes that actually at this rate the seven days will get over and he will not even come to Krishna. Then, in the eight canto which is the first chapter, it is like the fast forward, and in that seven manvantaras are covered, and then it comes to the current manvantara which is Vaivasata Manu, and from the eight canto onwards description of what all happens during the reign of Vaivasata Manu is given. The Lila of how Gajendra was liberated or Bali Maharaja was liberated are in the eighth canto. The ninth canto also goes on chronologically describing various manifestation of the Lord during this particular manvantara. Then, in the last chapter of the ninth canto, he just briefly describes that Krishna appeared and he performed wonderful pastimes. But then Pariskhit Maharaj says, “Stop, please don’t do anymore fast forward now. Please tell me Krishna’s pastime in detail.” And thus, if we consider the Bhagavatam to be twelve canto’s – it is not symmetrically divided. Almost 35% of the Bhagavatam is the tenth canto, and almost 15-20% of the Bhagavatam is the eleventh canto. These two canto’s are the heart of the Bhagavatam. It is almost 55- 60% of the Bhagavatam. The tenth canto is Krishna Lila(pastimes), and eleventh canto is Krishna siksha(teachings). We know Krishna’s teachings famously as the Bhagavad-gita, but along with that Krishna also taught the Uddhava-gita, and the Uddhava-gita is the major part of the eleventh canto; from chapter 7-30 onwards. It expands over twenty-four chapters. Then of course the twelfth canto has some predictions about what is going to happen in the future in Kali Yuga. In this way the Bhagavatam is history, but through all this history the Bhgavatam’s purpose is to illustrate how God is acting. That no matter how many terrible things seem to be happening, Krishna has a plan. Even when bad things are happening, the characters are told, “Actually time is unfavorable now. When time becomes favorable, things will work out for you. Just be patient.” So, we could say that the Bhagavatam reveals history to be “His story” in three different ways. The first way is, simply within the narrative itself. It is selecting that part of history where the Lord has appeared. In that sense it is “His story.” It is the story of God who is appearing, and how he has appeared and acted throughout the history of the universe is described, but that is only in terms of the linear chronology. However, the Bhagavatam is not just a book of history. The very concept of how history is to be told has evolved over centuries.
There is history and there is historiography. Historiography is a branch of knowledge which studies how history is written. Before the time of Newton or before the age of modern science, they focused primarily on facts and figures. Prior to that historical knowledge was not just for precise remembrance of dates, but the purpose of the study of history was to learn how to live more wisely. The teaching of history was not for the memorization of facts. The teaching history was for the internalization of values. It is said that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are forced to relive history. If we don’t learn a lesson, then we will have to be taught a lesson again and again. That’s why the point which I am making is, “The Bhagavatam is not going into a linear chronology.” In fact, several historians criticized the Indian civilization as being appallingly ahistorical. There has been ancient civilization, but there are no elaborate records of that ancient civilization that has been kept. Of course, the records are there, but the problem historians feel with respect to these records is that, they say that it is religious history. Now religion was a prominent force throughout the world than the past, and because of that, history would always be interwoven with religion. But their problem is that, when they talk about religious history, they see that this religious history has described God and his actions, and God often acts in miraculous ways. When he acts in miraculous ways, that is often seen as mythological. Therefore, there is history and historicity. Historicity means historical authenticity. Like if we want to do some archeological studies, we can’t archeologically prove that Krishna lifted Govardhan hill, because that is not an event that can never be established within the parameters of modern science. Because for modern science even lifting up a mountain would be considered to be mythological, but the historicity of Krishna would mean that, we could establish that Krishna as a person existed; that Krishna as a powerful king of the Yadu dynasty existed, Krishna as the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita existed and Krishna as a lad who sported in Vrindavana existed. So, the Bhagavatam’s purpose in describing history is not to give as a chronology.
We may read the Bhagavatam several times and not even realize the chronology of the Vaivasat Manu, Swambhuva Manu etc. because it is there, but is not the emphasis of the Bhagavatam. The emphasis of the Bhagavatam is to reveal how God is the doer of everything in this world ultimately. In one of the concluding verses of the Bhagavatam it is said that God acts through one’s own arms and through the arms of others. Like in the Kurukshetra war Krishna acted through the arms of Arjuna and Bhima. Thus, Krishna fulfilled his mission of Paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya duskritam and he destroyed the demons. So, when Krishna appears thus, at that time he is demonstrating how he and people who are divinely empowered by him act. And in that sense, it is describing not just the narrative of events associated with Krishna, but it is also describing the actions of Krishna. And in an even more philosophical level, actually the Bhagavatam is describing how everything that exists rests on Krishna. So, secondary creation cannot happen without Krishna, time cannot move without Krishna, the dynasties cannot reproduce and grow without Krishna, the rulers of the universe cannot rule without Krishna etc. So, everything is centered on Krishna. Krishna is the ashraya of everything, and that Krishna who is the ashraya of everything, is described in these pastimes as the ashraya of everything which is ashrita. In other words, Krishna will become ashrita or he will take shelter.
If we look at the first canto, first verse of the Bhagavatam, it is said that Krishna is swarat or completely independent. But that Lord who is self-effulgent and who is independent, he choses to become subordinate to his devotees. In fact, he becomes subordinate to not just his devotees but to Yoga Maya. Yoga mayam upasritam means that he takes shelter of Yoga Maya. So, what exactly it means to take shelter of Yoga Maya, we will discuss in the future sessions, but here this extraordinariness of the pastimes is highlighted by the ashraya becoming the ashritaha, or in other words, the supreme shelter is going to take shelter of something.
If we understand the philosophical context in which the statement comes, this would be like a dramatic announcement. It is like if somebody tells, “Today I am going to give a speech about how the world’s wealthiest person became a pauper, and what mistakes he made to become a pauper.” Or we may say, “Today I am going to describe how the world’s most powerful country became the world’s poorest country.” It will be a sensational announcement. Everyone will be interested in knowing how that happened. The starting line of a talk often catches the people’s attention, and if the starting line is describing something sensational, then the attention is captivated by that. So, this statement is in itself sensational within the context of the philosophy of the Bhagavatam; that Bhagavan became asritaha or the supreme shelter took shelter of someone. What that means is that the Bhagavatam is giving us a significant philosophical buffer before we enter into this exalted pastime. How this buffer prepares us for this particular pastime, we will discuss in tomorrow’s session.
I will summarize:
I spoke about the theme of understanding the rasa lila, and I spoke this in three distinct ways. First in terms of this verse, second in terms of the narration of the Bhagavatam, and the third in terms of the conceptual contrast that is illustrated in this verse. So, in terms of this verse I talked about how the Bhagavatam is describing in respect of the omniscient narrator. The omniscient narrator can give us a glimpse into the mind of the characters, and thus we can get to know the characters better. Here Sukdadeva Goswami uses a glimpse into the mind of Bhagavan or God himself; that he seeing this beautiful place he desired to enjoy. This is the heart of the Srimad Bhagavatam, and our Acharyas have commented on the Srimad Bhagavatam by writing verse by verse commentaries for the whole Bhagavatam. They have also commented by writing specific retellings of the tenth canto, and also have elaborated renditions of this Panchadhyaya itself. The conjugal pastimes of Krishna are the treasures which the Gaudia Vaisnava tradition has offered to the broad Bhakti tradition across the world. The broad tradition of loving God has been enriched immensely by this description of the eminent lovability of God, and to highlight that lovability of God we talked about Bhagavan and asritaha; how the supreme ashraya becomes ashritaha? and how the Bhagavatam’s history is “His story.” What does it mean? When we look at the past we don’t just see a flat plane, we see landmarks which stand out to our attention. Those are the important events in our life. Any history is a selection of important stories or events within that history that are told. The Bhagavatam is a history which is focusing on the times when God descended to the world. But in the first canto it is setting the scene of the Bhagavatam in terms of the conversation getting ready. Second canto describes the preliminary discussions, and from the third canto onwards the Bhagavatam is like a biography of the universe in terms of the rulers of the Manu. So, the third to the seventh cantos are describing the Swambhu Manu, but then seeing the paucity of time for Parikshit Maharaja, there is an acceleration from the first canto to the seventh canto, and also from the first to seventh manvantara in the first chapter of the eight canto. And then, from the eight canto to the eleventh canto it is especially describing the present manvantara in which tenth canto describes Krishna’s pastime and eleventh canto describes Krishna’s teachings, and the twelfth canto is the future predictions. Within this, it is all stressing on history as “His story”, how Krishna is acting throughout history, and how it is ultimately Krishna who is empowering whoever is acting in whatever way. So, when devotees are acting, and ultimately whatever is present within existence, whether it is the rulers of the universe or whether it is the agency of time, or whether it is the forces that bring about creation, none of them can be independent of Krishna. So, that Krishna who is the ashraya, how for this pastime he becomes asritaha, that is the dramatic declaration with which this pastime begins.
Thank you very much.
End of transcription.